The pianist and the passport

These days Tamás Vásáry is a famous conductor who works for the Hungarian National Radio as the music director of its orchestra. He has also racked up a Kossuth Prize for his piano work and gave his first public concert in Miskolc on October 23rd, 1956. Yes, that very October 23rd, when the revolution broke out.

As the closing number for his set that evening, Vásáry played Franz Liszt’s arrangement of the Rákóczi March (named after the Transylvanian prince who launched a war of independence against Austria in the 18th century), not realizing that in the meantime a revolution had actually broken out. The audience, however, was well aware of this, and they broke into a deafening round of applause when he finished. Vásáry was surprised by the overwhelming response as the audience stood as they applauded, repeatedly demanding that he replay the march again and again. After his performance, the organizers told Vásáry why the crowd had been so jubilant.

Since he had been invited to perform in Antwerp on December 2nd and 4th, Vásáry was already in possession of a passport. He could have easily left the country for the free world after the revolution was crushed but didn’t. When Vásáry’s father was taken in for questioning, they also took the pianist’s diary, which left him quite worried since within its pages he had made his support for the revolution and disgust for the communists abundantly clear. Despite his mother’s advice, Vásáry didn’t leave the country, but asked for an audience with the country’s second highest-ranking communist, Ferenc Münnich, to discuss his and his father’s cases. The two met at the parliament which was surrounded by tanks, where Münnich told Vásáry that the authorities would show restraint during his father’s interrogation.

The solution to Vásáry’s dilemma did not come from this meeting, however, but through the Belgian Queen Mother who intervened on his behalf because of the concert in Antwerp. That’s how the father of one of the greatest pianists of our era was released from prison, and not only his mother, but his father also received passports, which is why they decided to leave the country. With this, he continued his life in the West, while his sister who stayed in Hungary would update the world-famous composer Zoltán Kodály of his student’s achievements. Kodály, meanwhile, would pass messages via Vásáry’s sister urging the pianist to not even consider returning home, since the new regime had executed people for lesser sins than what Vásáry had written in his diary. Consequently, Vásáry would only return to Hungary decades later, thereby depriving the country of his talent. Other talents, however, would be lost to Hungary forever.

Bence Csatári